You are doomed if you do, and you are doomed if you do not. I am talking about stabilizing fabric for embroidery, sewing and other crafts. Machine Embroidery is easy and fun – except for the stabilizing part, because the wrong choice can ruin your work.
Stabilizers do a lot of good, actually, when chosen right. For one, it gives the fabric the strength and ability to bear the weight of the embroidery work and such. It gives the needed stiffness that is not there in unstable thin fabrics or slippery fabrics like chiffon and silks. Without a backing these fabrics will disappear into the hole in your sewing machine, and be ruined forever. They also facilitate the movement of heavy fabric on the sewing machine bed.
The stress of the embroidery on the fabric is lessened by the use of backing. It prevents the inevitable sagging of delicate and unstable fabric – no distortion even after extensive work, or puckering or tearing of the fabric. It does act as a barrier preventing damage to the fabric during the stitching process. If the stabilizer is not there some fabrics like knits will stretch out of shape. Even after the embroidery process, the backing can protect the garment /fabric through the subsequent washings.
If you are using thick heavyweight fabrics, you mostly do not need backing but in case of most other fabric it is better to use some kind of backing when doing machine embroidery, and even for some intense hand embroidery. They are also used when making quilts, sewing collars, pockets, hems etc. Some are used as reinforcement on seams of delicate fabrics like silk.
Different kinds of Stabilizers
1 Fusible Stabilizer
This is the kind of backing that is fused to the back of the fabric using heat. These stabilizers come in different fabric weights and a suitable one should be chosen for the right effect.
But you will have a problem if you want to remove it later – that is one disadvantage.
And a matching weight between stabilizer and fabric is necessary, otherwise there is a chance of bubbling. A sheer weight fusible is used on delicate fabric to give good stability to the thin fabric when you sew or do embroidery. For heavy weight fabric a similar stabilizer is used.
Some will have two side adhesive – you can use it to fuse fabric together – it is useful in applique work and for sewing hems. It is also useful when repairing holes on fabric. Some will have a glossy finish on the other side and some matt finish.
2 Sew in Tear away stabilizer
Sew in stabilizers are not fused to the fabric – they are kept under the fabric and temporarily fused to fabric with adhesive spray and it is available in many weights. Lightweight, medium weight and heavy-weights are used depending on the fabric you are using. Some ultra-firm stabilizers can even make the fabric stand stiff.
Tear away (sew-in) is a stabilizer that can be torn away completely or partially after the work is done. It is a favorite to be used with woven fabrics and fabrics that do not stretch – it is easy to use. But it is not much suited for thin unstable fabrics or ones that stretch or ones with open/loose weave.
The best tear away stabilizer for hoop less embroidery is one which attaches to the fabric when it is moistened with water. This way it does not have the needle clogging problem with fusible backings and still stays intact under the fabric as you embroider.
One problem with this type of stabilizer is that it can cause distortion when you tear it off.If you get a good quality tear away it will tear or wash away cleanly and completely, without damaging the stitches or fabric.
3 Sew in Cut away stabilizers
This is a more stable backing than tear away stabilizers and hence the most preferred. After the work is done you will cut it away from the back leaving a small allowance all around the design.
It is usually used on stretchy fabrics like knits (for t shirt embroidery) and non woven fabrics, open weave/loose weave fabric, lightweight fabrics, leather and vinyl or for complex designs giving them stability. You can use cutaway on delicate fabrics like thin silk and satin.
It is also preferred over tear away where you want continued protection even after the embroidery is done.
On T shirts a soft cut away stabilizer is used and it is hooped along with the stabilizer for embroidery. Sweatshirt-type knits need a thicker cut away stabilizer than t shirt knits. For Fleece you will need to use a cut away stabilizer and a topping stabilizer
For embroidering on Denim a Medium to heavy cut away is used. A medium weight cut away is the most popularly used one for most others.
Mesh cut away stabilizer can be used on clothes especially kids clothes as it is the least irritating on skin.
4 Sew in Water soluble backing /Wash away stabilizer
This is as the name suggest, soluble in water – this quality is at once a positive thing and a negative thing. As you wash your item the stabilizer washes away leaving a potentially unstable fabric. But when you do not want any of the stabilizer to remain, this is the one to use as backing.
When you use this, the work looks neat. It is especially good with sheer fabrics like organza and open weave fabrics net, tulle. It is used when making lace, buttonholes, edge work, shadow work, heirloom work, and applique.
After the work is done the stabilizer is washed away and the sheer fabric remains intact. The hot water soluble nonwoven backing material gets dissolved in plain hotwater – you just have to keep it soaked in hot water for some time as prescribed by the brand.
It can also be used on top of the fabric on fabrics which cannot be properly marked like terrycloth. After the embroidery is done the stabilizer is washed away. For this to work first draw the design on to the stabilizer . Keep the stabilizer on top of the fabric, fit the hoop and do the work. Afterwords soak stabilizer in cold or warm water to remove it.
5 Fabric as stabilizer
You can use a woven fabric (pre-washed) like muslin as your backing. It is especially good if you do not want the stiffness of the other stabilizers. Buckram is a coarse and stiff woven fabric that can be used as a stabilizer. Nylon gauze /polyester fabric is also used as a backing. Whatever you use, ensure that it does not have any stretch.
6 Dimensional backing
Fleece or a commercially available puff backing is used when you need a backing which will give some padding, a good dimension, even bulk. Fleece is usually used in quilting, and for making handbags. Fleece is available in different weights and also as sew-in and fusible.
7 Plastic films
You can use thin plastic sheets underneath the work. Dry cleaner Plastic bags are also used as backing. They are free and available.
Many people use simple paper under their work for stability – very inexpensive. But not as effective as the ones you buy. You cannot hoop paper.
On materials that have trouble moving, paper is used as a convenient backing that helps the fabric to move smoothly.
9 Sticky-backed stabilizers
This stabilizer has a paper cover on its adhesive side. This stabilizer could be cut away, tear away or wash away. This is primarily used when you cannot hoop the fabric – it could be a small one or just cannot be hooped like a shirt collar or will leave marks if hooped like.
The stabilizer is hooped and then the paper backing is removed and then the fabric is kept on it, for embroidery.
10 Topping stabilizers
This kind of stabilizer is kept on top of the fabric with texture. It is used when working with special fabrics like ones with nap, piled fabric, fabric with uneven weave, which will take in stitches and make them look unattractive.
The fabrics they are used on are fake fur, terry cloth, velvet, corduroy and fleece.
Some type of toppings dissolve in water and can easily be removed once the work is finished. Water soluble topping dissolve away giving a clean appearance to your work. They can be used to make lace. Some others dissolve with heat – best used with un-washable material. Some use Tulle Fabric as a topping
Solvy is a very popularly used (brand) water-soluble plastic film used as a topping stabilizer. It is used for embroidering on knitwear and terrycloth. Later after the work is done a light misting of warm water will dissolve SOLVY leaving the work neat and clean and not sunk in.
Using the stabilizers
The 3 main considerations in choosing stabilizers are – the kind of fabric you are using (its structure and stability), the effect you want and the stitch density. Other factors like color, stitch length, stitch speed, size of the embroidery and stability of the design are all important.
Buy the appropriate non-shrinkable non stretchable stabilizer. Get dense stabilizer for dense fabrics (Thickness is not the same as denseness in these materials)
For thin fabrics a lightweight stabilizer is used. If the stitch density is more (stitches in the design), a thicker denser stabilizer is used as backing. Another main consideration is how it will feel against the skin. For kids clothing a soft non irritating flame retardant one is preferred.
Please test the stabilizer on your fabric and the type of stitching with your sewing machine first before you use it on your real work. This way, you will know whether the backing is sufficient for your chosen fabric, particular stitching, sewing machine tension etc. or worse, will damage the fabric.
You need enough stabilizer to fit the hoop you are using. Cut the backing slightly larger than the hoop you are using and place it underneath the area of the garment you are working on. Hoop the fabric and the backing material ( treat them as one ; if needed use an adhesive spray to keep them together).